Language Mistakes
Oh Heavenly Berry

Language Mistakes Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg

In this series, Olivia Vieweg illustrates moments when speakers found themselves lost in translation. Swipe through the comics to see the silliest language mistakes that friends and colleagues of the Goethe-Institut Washington have made.

Olivia Vieweg and Savannah Beck

1. “Himbeere” (raspberry)/“Himmelbeere” (heaven berry)

 When you’re learning a new language, sometimes you don’t always say exactly what you mean. Sometimes, you say something else entirely. When Goethe DC’s Online Editor Savannah was studying abroad in Germany, she invented some words of her own. When trying to talk about “Himbeeren” (raspberries), she accidentally called them “Himmelbeeren” (heaven berries). It took her a while to recognize the mistake because her German friends thought it was too cute to correct and, to her, it was perfectly logical – raspberries are heavenly!
  • raspberry Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    In the first image, Olivia illustrates what Savannah meant to say, swipe to see what she actually said.
  • heaven berry Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    In the first image, Olivia illustrates what Savannah meant to say, swipe to see what she actually said.

2. “Beaucoup” (a lot)/“Beau cul” (nice ass)

Languages are full of nuance – subtle differences in emphasis, tone, and pronunciation that can alter a word’s meaning. So much so, that foreign speakers can be absolutely oblivious that they are missing the mark, even when they say a word over and over again.
 
French is the linguistic poster child of nuance. For native English speakers, the French vowels “u” and “ou” are often difficult to distinguish. The distinction lies in the positioning of the tongue – whether the speaker places it in the front or the back of the mouth. Mixing these vowels up has the capacity to completely transform the meaning of a word. One of the best examples is “beaucoup” (French for “a lot”). The only thing separating the French word for “a lot” (beaucoup) from the French words for “nice ass” (beau cul) is the difference between the “ou” and the “u.”
  • a lot Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe between Olivia’s illustrations of these terms for a healthy dose of schadenfreude.
  • nice ass Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe between Olivia’s illustrations of these terms for a healthy dose of schadenfreude.

3. “Toiletries”/“Toilet treats”

Ever find yourself craving a snack while you’re on the can? Maybe not, but “toiletries” does sound an awful lot like “toilet treats.” That’s how one of our friends ended up asking if anyone had seen his “bag of toilet treats.”
  • toiletries Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Olivia’s first illustration shows what he meant to say, the second shows the reality of what he said.
  • toilet treats Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Olivia’s first illustration shows what he meant to say, the second shows the reality of what he said.

4. “Lebkuchen” (gingerbread)/“Leberkuchen” (liver cake)

If you don’t know your food vocabulary in a foreign language, you can end up ordering some shocking combinations when snacking abroad. Our Online Editor Savannah once accidentally mixed up “Lebkuchen” (gingerbread) with “Leberkuchen” (liver cake). Thankfully, her intention was understood and she never learned what liver cake tastes like.
  • gingerbread Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe to see an artistic interpretation of liver cake.
  • liver cake Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe to see an artistic interpretation of liver cake.

5. “Eine Frau mittleren Alters” (a middle-aged woman) / “Eine mittelalterliche Frau” (a medieval woman)

As a non-native German speaker, sometimes it seems like Germans are just reusing the same 100 words – shuffling them around and combining them to create new meanings. It can be tricky to keep all of this strikingly similar wording straight. So, you end up saying things like “eine mittelalterliche Frau” (a medieval woman) when you meant to say something like “eine Frau mittleren Alters” (a middle-aged woman). Don’t worry, we know what you meant!
  • a middle-aged woman Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe to give a middle-aged woman a medieval makeover.
  • a medieval woman Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe to give a middle-aged woman a medieval makeover.

6. “Crepes”/“Creeps”

Switching two letters can make a whole new word – “from” becomes “form,” “beat” becomes “beta,” and “crepes” becomes...
  • crepes Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe between Olivia’s illustrations to see the mistake our francophone friend made.
  • creeps Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe between Olivia’s illustrations to see the mistake our francophone friend made.

7. “Mobben” (to bully) / “Mopsen” (to snatch or steal)

When you’re learning a new language, it’s easy to mix up words that sound alike – think “clothes” and “cloths” or “lose” and “loose.” The same is true for German learners. Here’s an example from a friend – swapping “mobben” (to bully) and “mopsen” (to snatch or steal).
  • to bully Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe to see the difference between the two terms.
  • to snatch or steal Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe to see the difference between the two terms.

8. “Prendre un bain de boue” (to take a mud bath)/“Prendre un bain debout” (to take a bath standing up)

Sometimes, you make a mistake in a foreign language that’s so specific, you’ll probably never be in a situation where you could make it again. For instance, “prendre un bain de boue” means to take a mud bath in French, but “prendre un bain debout” means to take a bath standing up (tricky to pull off). The opportunity for this kind of mix-up may only present itself once in a lifetime – say, on a pig farm in Quebec.
  • to take a mud bath Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe to see one disappointed pig.
  • to take a bath standing up Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe to see one disappointed pig.

9. “Nibbles”/“Nipples”

Even when you know the right way to say something in a foreign language, you can’t always bring yourself to say it. Some sounds are just hard for non-native speakers to reproduce – like the pesky “th” in English. A French-speaking friend can never get the word “nibbles” quite right...
  • nibbles Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe to see what he says instead.
  • nipples Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe to see what he says instead.

10. “Eichhörnchen” (squirrel)/”Einhörnchen” (little unicorn)

The English word “squirrel” is often cited as a word that native German speakers struggle with. A lesser-known tidbit is that native English speakers also tend to struggle with the German word for squirrel, “Eichhörnchen.” To conclude our series, we wanted to leave you with something new and magical that was born from all of these mistakes. After all, true innovation often comes from a misstep.
  • squirrel Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe to discover the wonderful new word derived from “Eichhörnchen,” inadvertently created by one of our colleagues.
  • little unicorn Illustration: © Olivia Vieweg
    Swipe to discover the wonderful new word derived from “Eichhörnchen,” inadvertently created by one of our colleagues.
 

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